• Garrett Tyson

Out from Under the Ether

Updated: Apr 20, 2020

It seems that we complain a lot about government these days. We complain because we are frustrated. We have a sense of how our interactions with government should go, and they just aren’t jiving with our experience in too many cases. Likewise, public administrators employed by the government to administrate policy (i.e. the people you meet with, exchange emails with, or talk to on the phone) share the feeling of frustration, but for seemingly different reasons. For the administrator, these interactions are frustrating because they perceive the constituent (i.e. the individual member of the public being subjected to a given policy) to be asking for special treatment or some sort of exception to the rules. In the end, both parties argue with varying success that their actions are justified.

Unfortunately, many of us lack the civic vocabulary needed to articulate our frustration, so what you often hear sounds like vaguely directed confusion and sometimes anger (“This just isn’t right”; “Surely there is more you can do”; “I don’t understand how something so simple can be so difficult” and so on). When our frustration is sustained or exacerbated by repeated instances of this, the complaints may turn into personal attacks on the public administrator’s work ethic, intelligence, and integrity. Anyone who works in local government knows that this is not an uncommon event.

When a constituent’s frustration is expressed in this way, the public administrator’s response is often a defensive one. This defensiveness is motivated by several related, but still different, incentives that are faced by the administrator in that moment. Those incentives include, but are not limited to, keeping their job (from which they make a living for themselves and their families); not getting sued (which is a constant source of concern for a public administrator); not providing incorrect information (which can get you sued and/or disciplined); and, of course, not validating someone they perceive to be acting like a jerk. Even a public administrator who is in the field of public service for the right reasons (i.e. not just to collect a paycheck, but to do real public service) will likely feel the aforementioned incentives much more sharply in that moment than any incentive to step back and deliberate with the constituent about what the right thing to do is under those current circumstances.

In these situations, the public administrator may retreat to the safe cover of “the code” (“I’m sorry, but the rules are what they are. I can't change them.”) They may even seek to diffuse responsibility by blaming the code itself or the legislators who adopted it (“Hey, I don’t make the rules, I just enforce them.”). In some circles, this is a tactic known as “C.Y.A.”, and while that tactic may be effective in accomplishing it’s stated purpose in the near-term, it is entirely inconsistent with what it means to be a public servant. What I mean is this: If it is your job, your sworn duty, to serve the public, then employing tactics that protect yourself and leave the other person feeling as though they must now do the same in response, is a failure. What should (and must) be a mutual effort to do justly becomes an intractable conflict.

It is time for our public administration to come out from under the ether of some of our closely held professional norms and start taking some risks in order to truly help our communities.

Remember what was said earlier about frustration representing the contrast between how you think should go and what actually happens? If you have a basic civic sense that the government is supposed to act in your interest instead of a self-serving way (and most Americans do have this sense), you will be left very frustrated when you have a problem and the government tells you there is nothing they can do to help you because doing so would just create a problem for THEM.

To summarize, the constituent is frustrated that the service/response they are receiving is incompatible with their sense of what should be happening, but they lack the vocabulary to express that to the administrator in a helpful way. The administrator hears the complaint, but because it is expressed indignantly, they translate it as someone who is only mad because they aren’t getting their way. The constituent perceives the administrator to be uncaring and lazy (and probably even says that out loud). The administrator, then, feeling increasingly less motivated to help someone behaving so rudely, simply reiterates their prior position (and possibly even extends it more forcefully), feeling justified in doing so because of the constituent’s unfriendly tone (which will likely be described by the administrator as increasingly belligerent when re-telling the story to their peers).

Even worse, many public administrators become so calloused to these interactions that they begin to take them as indicators that they are doing their job well. In some organizations, an administrator known to have adverse relationships with constituents may be hailed as a hero for having the courage to say "No" in the face of such adversity.

The code is nothing more than words on a page. Those words have a purpose, but only people, acting with a correct purpose; sound guiding principles; and clear priorities, can make those words real in your life in ways that produce mutually desirable outcomes.

What can get lost in all of this is the truth that, in far too many cases, well-meaning and highly capable public administrators are unwittingly perpetrating varying degrees of injustice when they blindly "stick to the code" as they genuinely believe they are supposed to do. As paradoxical it that may sound, sticking to the code can do as much harm as good when you're not being careful and deliberate. The code is nothing more than words on a page. Those words have a purpose, but only people, acting with a correct purpose; sound guiding principles; and clear priorities, can make those words real in your life and mine in ways that produce mutually desirable outcomes.

People outside of public administration (which often includes elected legislators as well) see this frustration, recognize it as a problem, and then rightly demand something be done about. However, the "something" that must be done is rarely ever (in my experience) a solution that aims to solve the real problem, which is a lack of purpose, principles and priorities to guide the administrator's conduct. Instead, because we do not properly identify the root of the problem, we simply demand MORE. More rules, more enforcement, more funding, more oversight, and it goes on and on. The price we pay for all this “doing more” is often growing and multiplying the problems we were aiming to solve.

The solution begins not by asking for more, but by taking a step back and asking ourselves and the people around us "Why?". Why are so many interactions with regulators characterized so prominently by adversity? Why do we even have these regulations? Why would someone behave in that way? Why would someone complain about that? Why would we not allow that behavior? What is dangerous about it? The more we ask ourselves and each other these difficult questions, the more shared understanding we will develop about what the problems truly are and how we can best address them.

Written rules, unlike the real-life situations they are meant to regulate, are static and rigid. They do not apply, adapt, or conform. Yet, they must be applied, adapted, and conformed to real people and real circumstances every day. Otherwise, this entire thing we call rule-of-law is a farce. Only a person who understands the true demands and purpose of public administration can do these things effectively; because the laws must apply, they must be applied to people by other people, and they must be applied in ways that are helpful. This takes skill, awareness, and training of the type that we need to consider whether we adequately providing to our public administrators.

The mistaken, yet popular, mindset about how to administrate public policy is, by now, well entrenched into our public-service professions. This is sad but true. Rather than endeavoring to apply rules and regulations in ways that fulfill their essential purpose and serve the public interest, many public administrators willingly and proudly abdicate their role under the guise of being ethical and professional (again, with all sincerity). Public administrators with this view are not hard to identify and you've probably encountered more than a few if you deal with government frequently. They say things like "I don't make the rules, I just enforce them" and "I'm sorry ma'am, but I can't make a special exception for you when everyone else had to follow the rules" or, one of my personal favorites, "I would love to be able to help you but I'm afraid of the precedent it would set. If we do it for you, then we're going to have to do the same thing for everyone else." Be encouraged in knowing that almost none of them do this with ill-intent of any kind. They don’t know any better and so it is up to us who have been there and made it out to help them. It is time for our public administration to come out from under the ether of certain of our closely held professional norms and start taking some risks in order to truly help our communities. Our administrators deserve it and so do the people they serve.

If you're reading this and having brow-furrowing flashbacks to meetings or phone conversations with government employees, please remember that most of these people (in my experience, at least 9/10) genuinely believe they are doing excellent public service and that belief is being constantly reinforced by the people around them. Unfortunately, what they don't see is that by failing to apply and adapt the rules and regulations to give them effect in light of their purpose, they are actually doing the public (of which we are each an important part) a major disservice. Granted, there really are times when exceptions cannot and should not be made, and there really is a point at which an interpretation of the law becomes actual legislation (which is beyond the authority of the public administrator in most cases). However, these situations are not nearly as frequent as one would be made to believe. In my experience, an effective public administrator can apply most regulations in a way that is effective and helpful without having to amend and add to the code to do so. (Many of these codes are have thousands of sections…if there isn’t enough content there already, there is never going to be.)

Similarly, if you are a public employee reading this and are struggling to believe that your arch-nemesis in the private-sector is anything but a selfish actor who wants to raid the public coffers, please remember that most of these people are also well-meaning and very capable people who are usually very open to regulation if someone is ever willing to justify it to them in a way that makes sense.

There are a lot of very adept public administrators who are making important sacrifices for their communities’ day-in and day-out who simply lack an adequate awareness of purpose, principles and priorities. I would know. Early in my public administration career I was one of the worst examples of everything I describe as being wrong about public administration in this piece. After years of frustration over the seemingly constant adversity with the public I served, I endeavored to find a solution. What I eventually discovered was that you really can do very efficient and effective public service, while also having positive and productive relationships with the individuals affected by the regulations. Administrators do not have to choose between focusing on procedures or relationships, as if progress in one area must come at the expense of the other (I personally know many public administrators who genuinely believe that to be true). You can be very successful in both areas and be trusted while you do it. Getting there and enjoying that success begins and ends with the mindset we adopt when we approach our work. Having a mindset that appreciates and respects those who have a different perspective on our work is vital. Working diligently to remain mindful of our purpose, our guiding principles, and priorities will get us there in each case as they come.

If you are interested in learning more about how to institute greater awareness of purpose, guiding principles, and priorities for public administration in your organization, contact CivicMinded by phone at (417) 597-3154 or by email at Please also consider subscribing to our newsletter, CivicSense, for valuable insights and practical solutions in your inbox every month.

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